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Friday, November 22, 2019

10 NBA players off to a hot start

Giannis Antetokounmpo

We’re now four weeks into the new NBA season, and several teams have come out of the gates scorching. The Raptors and Bucks look like the class of the East, the Warriors appear borderline unbeatable, and the young Nuggets have shown they’re ready to contend now.

Those teams’ impressive starts could largely be attributed to the stellar play of their stars. Here are 10 players — including at least one from each of those teams — off to a hot start.

10. Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers

Everyone seemed to be saying the same thing about the Blazers heading into this season: they’re toast. Portland had an impressive 2017-18 regular season, but suffered a brutal first-round postseason exit at the hands of Anthony Davis and the Pelicans. Despite Portland’s regular-season success, Terry Stotts’ job security was in question. Well, Portland has started strong (10-3) yet again, and Damian Lillard is a big reason for that. He’s currently averaging 26.0 points per game on a career-best field-goal percentage (46.5), and free-throw percentage (94.0). He recently hung 30 on LeBron and the Lakers. Lillard looks poised to have a breakthrough campaign thrusting him into MVP contention. He’s on a mission to prove Portland is a genuine contender in the loaded West.

9. Blake Griffin, Pistons

Admit it: we had all written off Blake. His best days appeared to be behind him. He no longer had the bounce that was the hallmark of his game in Los Angeles. He was trapped with a mediocre supporting cast in Detroit. Everything seemed to be working against him. But Detroit added the reigning Coach of the Year, and Dwane Casey and Blake may be ushering a turnaround in the Motor City. Griffin is averaging 24.1 points (tied for his career high), 10.2 rebounds, and 5.0 assists per game. The Pistons started 4-0 but have cooled off — they’re now 6-6. If they’re going to contend with the class of the East (Toronto, Milwaukee, Indiana, Boston, and Philly), the Pistons will need Griffin to continue his dominant performance.

8. Kevin Durant, Warriors

The rumors that this is K.D.’s final campaign in Golden State reached a fever pitch over the summer. Seemingly everyone believes this is the last go-round for the Villains as we know them, especially after the altercation with Draymond Green. Durant, Steph Curry (who appears later on this list), and Klay Thompson are all off to monster starts. Durant is averaging 27.4 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 6.8 assists (an easy career high) per game, and he’s shooting a scorching 41.2 percent from deep. The 30-year-old hasn’t averaged that many points since his 2013-14 MVP campaign (32.0 PPG). Is Durant headed to the Knicks, Clippers, or another new team next summer? Who knows? But in case this is the final run for the Warriors, let’s appreciate the individual and collective greatness in front of us.

7. Joel Embiid, 76ers

The Process has cemented himself as a superstar. He’s made putting up 30 and 10 a routine thing. With 28.2 points per game, Embiid is second in the league in scoring. He’s also sixth in blocks (2.1). Early in the season, there was reason for fans to be concerned about the Sixers — Markelle Fultz’s jumpshot, it is clear, is far from fixed. Further, it’s still not clear that he can be on the court at the same time as Embiid and Ben Simmons, and the team’s depth was a real question mark. But Philly fans received a boost of life when the team dealt for Jimmy Butler this week. They can also take solace in knowing Embiid is healthy, in shape, and at the peak of his powers. Trust it.

6. Zach LaVine, Bulls

LaVine became a punchline after signing a massive four-year, $78 million contract with the Bulls this summer. He shrugged off the hate, though, and said he was motivated to prove his critics wrong. Before this season, we predicted that he could break out in 2018-19. So far, he’s made that prediction look good. The 23-year-old has come into his own. He’s always had athleticism to spare, but he finally looks like a polished NBA guard. His 27.1 points per game average is 10 above his previous career high. He’s also averaging career best averages in rebounds (5.2), assists (4.0), and blocks (0.6). The Bulls are only 4-10, but LaVine has been a bright spot. Suddenly, that 2017 Butler trade looks pretty wise.

5. Rudy Gobert, Jazz

This will finally be the season that the Stifle Tower makes the All-Star Game. Gobert is leading the league in field-goal percentage (72.1), he’s fifth in blocks per game (2.38), and he’s fourth in rebounds per game (13.5). The Jazz don’t need him to provide much of a scoring punch — Donovan Mitchell carries the lion’s share of the offensive load — but Gobert is averaging a respectable 16.3 points per game, the most in his career. The Jazz haven’t quite lived up to expectations as a team (they’re only 7-6), but Gobert has done his part. Look for him to start in Charlotte in February.

4. Nikola Jokic, Nuggets

Shortly before the season commenced, former Cavaliers general manager David Griffin said he liked Jokic as a longshot to win MVP. The prediction may have seemed ridiculous, but now it looks wise. The continued evolution of the Joker is the main reason the Nuggets got off to one of the best starts in the Western Conference. Jokic, one of the most skilled big men in the league, is averaging 17.8 points, 10.3 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.2 steals, and 1.0 blocks per game. The 23-year-old Serbian has continued to improve his outside shot, and he’s hitting 41 percent of his three-point attempts. With Jokic and a healthy Gary Harris, Denver is one of the most exciting young teams in the league — though the Nuggets have cooled off, dropping three in a row.

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

Much was made of Milwaukee adding former Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer this summer. Much was also made of the Greek Freak bulking up this summer. As it turns out, the hype was real. Giannis has gone up a level this season. In a super-fun recent showdown with Boston, Giannis scored 33 points and snagged 11 rebounds. He’s averaging career highs of 13.0 rebounds (sixth in the league) and 5.8 assists per game. Budenholzer’s system has helped Giannis, but it’s also clear his game has developed. The 24-year-old still isn’t a shooter (7 percent from three, ouch), but he’s playing more efficiently and getting to the rim at will. He’s suddenly one of the best scorers in the NBA, and his development is the main reason the Bucks are 10-3.

2. Kawhi Leonard, Raptors

No one knew what to expect from Kawhi this season. He was stepping into a new situation in Toronto, and his health was unclear — would he return to 100 percent after missing practically all of this season with a quadriceps injury? The answer is clear: yes. Yes, yes, yes. Kawhi is back. The two-way stud is playing 32.6 minutes per game, and he seems to have fit in perfectly with the Raptors, who have looked like the class of the East when he has suited up. Further, Kawhi is hitting 38.1 percent of his three-point attempts, and his 7.7 rebounds per game are a career high. A Leonard-Butler showdown in the playoffs would be a lot of fun — two enigmatic superstars fighting for their reputations, for their next contracts, and for East supremacy.

1. Stephen Curry, Warriors

Steph has willingly taken a backseat since the Warriors signed Kevin Durant in 2016. Though the team has achieved incredible success, winning back-to-back titles, Curry has allowed Durant to achieve more individual shine. The former Thunder forward has won back-to-back Finals MVPs. Curry, a two-time MVP, has stepped back into the spotlight in 2018. He’s playing arguably the best basketball of his career right now, only slowed by a groin injury. He looks like his vintage, electric self — the player who enraptured the NBA in 2015-16 en route to winning the league’s first-ever unanimous MVP. Curry is leading the league in scoring (29.5 points per game), and he’s shooting 49.2 percent (!) from outside. He already has one iconic performance this season: 51 points in 32 minutes against Washington (making 11 of 16 three-point attempts). It seems he could explode for 50 any given night. This is a good thing — the league is better when Steph Curry is going all Steph Curry.

Aaron Mansfield is a freelance sports writer whose work has appeared in Complex, USA Today, and the New York Times. You can reach him via email at [email protected]



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